Rubio, Obama, Diaz-Balart, Ros-Lehtinen, Jeb Bush — oh my! Everyone’s talking immigration now

The fiscal cliff debate is on hold. Now comes the demographic cliff debate: Immigration.

Former Gov. Jeb Bush hosted a Friday powwow about immigration reform. U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio and President Obama’s administration leaked details of their plans over the weekend that would give varying degrees of amnesty to those illegally in the country.

And on Monday in Doral, Miami U.S. Reps. Mario Diaz-Balart and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen held a forum to gather ideas and, in Diaz-Balart’s words, give them “ammunition” to call on their colleagues to reform immigration..

With the exception of Obama, all are from Florida and are Republicans. Their party’s hard-line immigration stances helped drive Hispanics, the state and nation’s fastest-growing demographic group, to the Democratic Party this last election. Republicans don’t want a repeat in two years.

“Both parties have used immigration as a political wedge issue,” Diaz-Balart said. “The Democrats never wanted to get it done. They wanted to have it as a political issue. It worked very well for them.”

But, Diaz-Balart said, his party isn’t without fault.

“Republicans didn’t want to get it done — leadership — they wanted it as a wedge issue. It has worked poorly for them,” he said.

Diaz-Balart and Ros-Lehtinen say this is the year that Congress needs to pass immigration reform. A major fault-line: Whether to give illegal immigrants a pathway to citizenship or a pathway to residency.

Still, this is the time, Diaz-Balart said because it’s not an election year. So there’s less chance for hyper-partisan politics, Diaz-Balart said. It’s also a new Congress. And Republicans, who blocked major congressional immigration legislation in 2010 and 2006, might be more willing to vote for immigration-reform plans as the lessons of 2012’s elections are still fresh.

Ros-Lehtinen pointed out that Democrats, too, have had problems with their voters when it comes to immigration reform. Labor unions, which tend to support Democrats, have opposed guest-worker immigration programs in the past because they allow for an influx of cheap labor from overseas. Unions now indicate, however, that they’re willing to support a comprehensive immigration package.

But the complexity, the emotions and the host of special interests involved in the immigration debate have paralyzed Congress for years. It’s unclear now if 2013 is any different. The polarized Congress could barely stave off the so-called “fiscal cliff” debt-and-spending controversy last month.

That debate is about to return, which could freeze Congress from doing any other major legislation.

Right now, neither Diaz-Balart, Ros-Lehtinen nor Rubio have produced legislation. They say they’re working on it, trying to gain consensus. They could have bills filed within the next four months.

Rubio, the son of immigrants and one of the most-influential Republican senators, last week released a passel of immigration proposals he’s working on by himself and with others.

“Washington has run away from problems for years and punted them for future generations to solve,” Rubio said. “I’ve disagreed with some ideas offered in past debates and the way the issue’s been handled, so it’s our responsibility to offer solutions that modernize our legal immigration system, strengthen security and enforcement measures, and deal with the undocumented population in a humane way that doesn’t give them a special advantage over immigrants trying to come legally."

Rubio called for more high-skilled workers to legally enter and remain in the country, expand guest-worker permits for lower-skilled laborers such as farm workers and streamline the process.

Rubio also wants to legalize the status of many of the estimated 12 million undocumented immigrants. He said they’d have to pay fines, back taxes and prove they’re not criminals. In return, they’d be given what’s known as "non-resident legal status." Then after a number of a number of to-be-determined years, they’d have an opportunity to apply for permanent residency and receive a green card.

Rubio says he wants young people who are illegally in this country to be given a pathway to residency if they go to school and or the military. Former vice presidential candidate Rep. Paul Ryan, of Wisconsin, has endorsed Rubio’s plan.

In contrast, President Obama has backed the DREAM Act, which would put these citizens on a pathway to citizenship. Obama also wants many other illegal immigrants to be given a shot at citizenship, not just residency.

“I think whatever process we have needs to make sure border security is strong, needs to deal with employers effectively, needs to provide a pathway for the undocumented here, needs to deal with the Dream Act kids. And I think that’s something that we can get done,” Obama said at a White House press conference Monday.

Bush, who plans to publish a book on immigration this spring, at another point said Republicans need to “stop acting stupid” regarding immigration, in part because it cost the party votes.

Bush’s admonitions were ignored. Obama went on to win the Hispanic vote 60 percent to Mitt Romney’s 39 percent in Florida, an outsized margin that helped the president overcome disproportionate non-Hispanic white support for the Republican candidate. Nationwide, Obama’s margin was even bigger. Some Republicans began to worry that the party couldn’t afford a repeat as the Hispanic population grows in size and influence.

In Monday’s Doral meeting, more than 20 immigration-reform advocates asked their Republican congressional leaders to push for the DREAM Act.

A few expressed concern with the focus on border security, noting that deportations have been at record highs — as has immigration-enforcement spending — under Obama while the number of illegal immigrants coming into the country has decreased. Yet Republicans are pushing for even more immigration enforcement.

Estefania Pugliese, a 19-year-old graduate of Ronald Reagan Senior High School in Doral, said she wants Congress to do something not just for her but for her parents, Venezuelan nationals whose political asylum case has dragged on for years.

“I have been a very blessed DREAMer,” she said. “But I fear my parents being deported.”